Next year is going to be…different. Some of the guys we said goodbye to this past weekend may even be back, but next year is still going to be very different. Ned Yost didn’t shy away from that in his season-ending press conference, nor should he have. I’m not sure what the point would have been because we all know the reality that the 2018 Royals will only loosely resemble the World Champions from just a few seasons ago. Now, my fascination with the future is no longer too early, but right on time, so let’s get to it.
The Royals have nine players under contract for next season – Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy, Jason Hammel, Joakim Soria, Salvador Perez, Brandon Moss, Jorge Soler and Drew Butera in descending salary order – and another three who are arbitration eligible. The nine under contract are set to be paid about $90 million and the arbitration eligible players – Kelvin Herrera, Nate Karns and Brandon Maurer – figure to earn somewhere between $12 million and $14 million.
For a team that set a record with the largest payroll in team history and went 80-82, I’d be surprised if they’re going to spend more, which means they have a little to work with but not much to fill the final 13 spots on the roster.
We know who the catchers are going to be. Salvador Perez will start 157 games and Drew Butera will likely handle the other five. I was impressed with what we saw from Cam Gallagher, but his time to pick up 18 at bats in a backup role won’t be until 2019 when Butera’s contract is up.
This is where it gets interesting because three of the four starting infielders are free agents, if you hadn’t heard. The Royals will be looking to fill their starting first base, shortstop and third base position. Luckily, they have the means to do so from within, if they so choose. Cheslor Cuthbert played a ton of third base for the team in 2016 when Mike Moustakas was injured, so he’s a possibility there, as is Hunter Dozier, who missed most of 2017 with various injuries in the minors. At shortstop, if the Royals don’t give Alcides Escobar the lifetime contract I expect them to, Raul Mondesi can take over. And then at first base, one of Cuthbert or Dozier could play there, but other possibilities include Brandon Moss or Ryan O’Hearn, the latter needing to be added to the 40-man roster this winter to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 draft.
My guess here is the Royals go all internal if they don’t do the unthinkable and re-sign one of their free agents on the corners. I’d guess we see a combination of Cuthbert, Dozier and Moss at first base while O’Hearn cooks a little more in the minors and a combination of Cuthbert, Dozier and probably some Ramon Torres at third base. It won’t be nearly as set as we’ve grown accustomed to.
Some will wonder where Frank Schwindel fits in, and while I love what he did in the minors this year, I don’t think he fits in anywhere. He’s a nice minor league depth bat.
The Royals actually have plenty of outfield options, which would seem to be a good thing until you realize that with all the outfielders they have, they don’t have a center fielder. They can tell you that Alex Gordon could slide over there, but I can’t imagine 150 games of Gordon and his declining speed out there. So the corners look to be some combination of Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier. In center, the options right now are Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns (who will be out of options), Bubba Starling or maybe Donnie Dewees. Woof.
My guess is the Royals play around in the free agent market for a center fielder. Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson and Jon Jay are all options here, but I think they’d prefer to avoid Jackson or Jay as neither of them are what you’d call “good” defensively. I know, I know, what about Lorenzo Cain? Sure, he’s a possibility, but I think he’s far more likely to find a deal that makes him sign elsewhere than have to settle for a shorter term commitment with the Royals.
The outside the box solutions are moving one of Mondesi or Merrifield to center field and re-signing Escobar. I’ve mentioned Merrifield a few times while the organization has floated the idea of Mondesi. I don’t hate either of them other than the fact that it means more Escobar, who I thank graciously for his contributions and hope he can make it to the reunion.
I think the odds are that Gordon is in left most days with a free agent signee in center and Bonifacio in right with Orlando getting plenty of playing time as the fourth outfielder.
The starting five is probably the most stable part of the team. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing after the season they put together, but you’ve got Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jake Junis and Nate Karns. I’ve talked about this group a fair amount in recent weeks. You can’t expect 30 quality starts from any of these five, but if they’re all clicking, that’s not a bad unit for the turns through the rotation that they do spend together. The Royals will need to find some depth this offseason because as much as I love Eric Skoglund’s debut story and all that, he’s not it.
I think we could see Foster Griffin continue to rise through the system and make his debut in 2018, which will help for depth purposes, but he strikes me as a guy who will get hit hard early in his career while he’s still developing. The Royals desperately need someone to emerge next season whether that’s Josh Staumont or someone else who isn’t on the radar or else they’re going to have to go to the free agent market to find some depth. I mentioned a few weeks back finding guys who could work between the rotation and the bullpen. Tyler Chatwood, Jesse Chavez and Scott Feldman might make some sense for depth, but other than Chatwood, who posted a 3.49 ERA away from Coors Field, there isn’t really a name who will excite anyone.
I believe they will sign one free agent starter and hope for development for the rest of the depth in the rotation. And I also believe that would be a mistake if they hope to contend.
The only lock here is Soria because of his $9 million salary, though I believe there’s a nice foundation in the bullpen aside from him. Scott Alexander emerged as a quality reliever this year. Ryan Buchter had solid numbers in spite of people including him in the group with the other Padres pitchers. And Kevin McCarthy was better than I expected. I haven’t mentioned Kelvin Herrera yet and that’s because he’s an interesting case. After earning $5.3 million in 2017 and posting 26 saves, he could be in line for $8-$9 million in arbitration. I have to think the Royals would prefer not to spend that on him. I think he’s a trade candidate or a two-year deal candidate.
I have zero inside information about this, but I think the Royals ultimately retain Mike Minor. My gut is that they wanted to see how he handled closing games and then would make him an offer after the season if it went well. It went well. Add Richard Lovelady to the mix and the Royals look to have a lefty heavy bullpen, though most of the arms are more than capable of getting right-handed bats out. I think that means the organization bids Brian Flynn adieu, but that happens.
Some free agents they may look into are bringing back Neftali Feliz, Pat Neshek if he’s okay not signing with a contender and a bunch of reclamation projects. I haven’t mentioned Brandon Maurer yet because I don’t want to, but he’s probably on the team too. The bullpen is probably the toughest to predict because it can be such a fluid area.
The issue with this team, as I’ve said all season, is not that the players are necessarily bad, but it’s a team built on almost entirely role players. Most of this team would be a nice supporting cast to four to six really good players, but this supporting cast is going to have to play a leading role. If guys like Mondesi and Soler step up and Karns can somehow magically give them 30 starts, maybe they can make some noise. But the likelihood is the team listed above is good enough to not be bad and bad enough to not be good. It’s not a great place to be, but that’s what I see as of right now for the 2018 Royals.